Britain will refer reports that hundreds of people have been killed in a nerve gas attack near near Damascus to the United Nations, with William Hague saying the reports would mark a “shocking escalation” if proved true.
By Hannah Strange
Opposition activists, backed by medical sources, said at least 213 people, including women and children, had been killed in an assault by President Bashar Assad’s forces on rebel held areas of the Ghouta region east of Damascus.
But the government issued a strong denial, accusing activists of seeking to distract a United Nations team currently visiting the country to probe alleged use of chemical weapons.
“Reports on the use of chemical weapons in (the suburbs of) Ghouta are totally false,” state news agency SANA said.
The reported deployment of chemical weapons could not be independently verified. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain would raise the reported attack at the United Nations Security Council.
“I am deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of people, including children, have been killed in airstrikes and a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus,” he said.
He said that if the reports were proved, they would mark a “shocking escalation”.
The alleged death toll was collated from medical centres in the region, Bayan Baker, a nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility said. Activists said the suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar had been bombarded with rockets loaded with chemical agents.
Activists from the Local Coordination Committee said that at least 30 bodies had been brought to one field hospital in Kafr Batna neighbourhood.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights backed reports of a high death toll as a result of the alleged bombardment. It said Mouadamiya, southwest of the capital, had came under the heaviest attack since the start of the two-year conflict.
It called on the UN chemical experts and international organisations to visit the affected areas to ensure aid could be delivered and to “launch an investigation to determine who was responsible for the bombardment and hold them to account”.
Syrian authorities and rebels have accused each other of using chemical agents in the course of the civil war, in which 100,000 people have been killed. On Sunday a 20-strong team of UN observers arrived in Damascus after the Syrian government agreed to allow them to inspect three locations where the use of chemical weapons has been alleged.
The United Nations says it has received up to 13 reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, primarily from the United States, France and Britain, but also from the Assad government itself.
The use of chemical weapons is a hot button issue as Washington has marked it out as a “red line” in the conflict. In June, the Obama administration moved to send military support to Syrian rebels after declaring that the Assad government had used chemical weapons on opponents “multiple times”.
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